by Brendan Porter
1. Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Ekman-Larsson led the NHL in goals by a defenseman last season with 23. OEL is really starting to get the attention he deserves as one of the league’s premier two-way defensive players. At 24 years old, he’s settled into his role as the top guy on the blue line in Arizona, and will continue to be a force to be reckoned with at even-strength and on the power play.
2. Forward prospects.
Arizona’s prospect pool at the forward position is among the most promising in the league. Max Domi and Anthony Duclair figure to make the jump to the NHL this season, while fellow first-round picks Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini could make strong pushes of their own. In addition, the Coyotes have several intriguing forwards making their way up the ranks in the form of Nick Merkley, Christian Fischer, Michael Bunting, Laurent Dauphin, and Conor Garland.
3. Roster flexibility.
While advanced stats earn the lion’s share of attention, roster construction is extremely important as well. The Coyotes have a ton of flexibility up and down their roster, as only Mike Smith and OEL are signed through 2019-20. Arizona will have plenty of spots open for young, talented forwards and defensemen to take, and can make trades and free agent signings as needed to fill the gaps.
by Carl Pavlock
1. They can't score.
Though the Coyotes have a lot of potential at the forward position, potential is different from performance. Last season’s team was 29th in the league in goals for, with only Buffalo’s historically inept offense below Arizona’s. And despite the team’s horrible scoring rates, the Coyotes lost their second-, third-, and sixth-best scorers to trades and free agency. That’s a mighty big hole to dig out of.
2. They can't prevent goals.
Despite defense being a hallmark of Dave Tippett’s teams, the Coyotes struggled to keep pucks out of their net last season. They gave up 3.26 goals per game, which was only better than Buffalo and Edmonton. There hasn’t been a ton of change on defense from this year to last, so there’s a lot of pressure on everyone to play better.
If there’s one contract the Coyotes would probably like to have back, it’s Mike Smith’s six-year deal that runs through the 2019-20 season. Smith finished the year strong and still managed to only have a 3.16 GAA and a .904 save percentage. Anders Lindback bounced between Dallas and the Stars' AHL affiliate before being shipped to Buffalo to finish out the year. Overall, Arizona’s goaltending situation does not look that impressive.
1. Can the team’s forward prospects transition to the NHL?
2. Will Mike Smith rebound from a miserable 2014-15 season?
3. Will the Coyotes return to Dave Tippett hockey?
Get the answers at Five For Howling.
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Brendan Porter
Mike Smith rediscovers the success that got this team to the 2012 Western Conference Final, and he posts a strong year with the help of the defense in front of him, which plays a far stronger game around the crease. Michael Stone and Connor Murphy combine to help fill the gap felt by the loss of Keith Yandle.
Meanwhile, Calder Trophy finalists Max Domi and Anthony Duclair form a surprisingly lethal combination on the top line, and complement Norris Trophy finalist Oliver Ekman-Larsson in giving the Coyotes enough offense to challenge for a playoff spot. And after the Coyotes come up just short, the hockey gods smile on the effort by allowing the team to win the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery and the right to select Arizona native Auston Matthews first overall.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by Sarah Hall
First half of 2014-15 Mike Smith shows up again, and not even a new goalie coach can right the ship. Nicklas Grossmann and Zbynek Michalek can’t keep opposing forwards away from the net, and nobody on defense can play the right side with Ekman-Larsson.
Meanwhile, Domi and Duclair struggle to adjust to the NHL, and post underwhelming seasons. The offense doesn’t materialize and the Coyotes finish 30th in the league. Glendale and IceArizona get in another legal battle over something as the Coyotes fall to 4th overall in the 2016 NHL Draft and have to watch Auston Matthews play in Los Angeles.